John Pelletier, who has led the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services since its inception in 2010, announced his resignation on Wednesday. His final day as executive director will be Friday, Dec. 11. Credit: The Maine Monitor

Story by Samantha Hogan, Maine Monitor

John Pelletier has resigned from his role as the director of Maine’s public defense agency, he announced on Wednesday. The decision comes amid mounting criticism of his management of attorneys he hired to represent the poor who are accused of crimes.

Pelletier has spent the past decade working as the head of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, which provides legal defense to those who cannot afford a lawyer. In the last four years, Pelletier was repeatedly questioned by lawmakers and subjected to numerous investigations into his handling of the agency’s finances and oversight of the attorneys he hired. His last day will be Dec. 11.

Pelletier declined to comment on his resignation when reached by phone on Wednesday.

“This is long-needed change at MCILS,” said Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, who has pushed for increased oversight of the state agency.

An investigation published last month by The Maine Monitor and Propublica found that Pelletier repeatedly overlooked professional misconduct and criminal convictions when hiring attorneys to represent the state’s poor. This left some defendants and their families to be assigned attorneys who missed court appearances or had felony convictions, court records show. In one case, an attorney approved by Pelletier repeatedly harassed his client for sex while working as her court-appointed defense lawyer.

Comments Pelletier made to lawmakers and members of the commission in the past year regarding his efforts to rein in high-billing attorneys also did not match his agency’s records, the joint investigation found.

An in-depth government oversight report on the agency’s finances is scheduled to be released on Monday. Pelletier and eight appointed members of the commission met in executive session on Oct. 6 and Oct. 15 to discuss the confidential report and provide a response to its findings.

Pelletier was selected in 2010 as the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services’ first executive director, when the state transitioned public defense out of the judicial branch and into a standalone agency overseen by the Legislature. For the first 10 years of its operation, an office staff of four people, which included Pelletier, oversaw hundreds of private attorneys and approximately 26,000 new cases a year.

The agency is on the brink of undertaking major reforms to Maine’s public defense system. It proposed a $35.4 million budget to the governor for next fiscal year to open the state’s first two public defender offices, increase its staff by 10 positions and increase the reimbursement rate of court-appointed attorneys from $60 to $100 per hour — the first raise for public defense attorneys in five years.